Temple Etiquette in Thailand

Wat Ban Den Temple

What is appropriate temple etiquette? How to behave in temples? And what not to do.

First of all, it is kind of horrifying thinking of tourist climbing up on Buddha statues, sitting in their lap, holding The Buddha’s hand and so on. Just imaging the scene having a bunch of Asian tourists climbing a cross with Jesus and posing with the son of God. Fortunately, it is quite rare to see these scenes in Thailand now. Instructions are often quite clear in the temples of what you can do or not. Common sense will take you a long way.

Wat Chiang Man is an old temple in old city of Chiang Mai
Wat Chiang Man Chiang Mai

11 advice for proper Temple Etiquette in Thailand

  • Dresscode, a minimum requirement is to cover up shoulders. Preferably wear something with a short sleeve. Always wear knee-long skirt och shorts. Dress conservatively. Some places like Wat Phra Kaew /Grand Palace in Bangkok, as well as Bang Pa-In/Ayutthaya, have a much stricter dress code. Make sure to read up on these rules beforehand.
  • Take off shoes before you enter the temple also any headwear.
  • Don’t stand on the threshold.
  • Don’t touch sacred and holy objects unless you are taking part in a religious ceremony yourself.
  • When you take pictures don’t disturb people worshipping.
  • If Thai people pose or take pictures with the Buddha they normally sit or place themselves lower than the Buddha and sit in a very appropriate way.
  • Monks should not touch women. As a woman keep some distance. I remember a friend on a bus in Bangkok that wasn’t aware that she was standing in a way that made her back touch a monk and Thai people carefully try to inform her what was going on. Asking for a selfie with a monk and putting a hand on the shoulder isn’t a very good move. However, I have had monks coming up to female clients in my group to shake hands with them. Any initiative should come from their side though.
  • Taking pictures of monks. Kind of touchy but if you do it. Make sure it is ok. At certain ceremonies and so it becomes less private. You can normally sense if it is ok or not depending on the situation and asking is the right thing to do.
  • And of course, when you sit down in the Viharn don’t point your feet towards the Buddha.
  • Only enter buildings that clearly states that it is ok. Some areas might be out of bounds for women.
  • Don’t be intimate, kissing and such is already very rare in public so in the temples that is an absolute no do!

The basic rule is to follow the instructions you see in any temple. They might differ a bit from one holy place to another. Some temples might not allow photo taking inside, or not directed towards the Buddha and so on. Moderation and consideration takes you a long way and that is the way to start. Your clothing will be the very first control or check done at the temple gates.

In Wat Doi Kham you find this standing Buddha in a teaching position.
Standing Buddha in teaching position in Wat Doi Kham outside Chiang Mai

Already at the airport, signboards announce that one should respect Buddhism as it is the religion that more than 90% of the population adhere to. So avoid Buddha t-shirts, tattoos. There is even a law banning commercial trade with Buddha statues. Not strictly enforced. But Thai people don’t buy Buddhas for decorations, a cute thing to put in the toilet. They are placed at rooms or positions of worship in houses.

Spirit houses

Our spirit house is at home with food for the guardian for luck and blessings of 2022. The spirit is assumed to be waiting while the incense burns. That is somewhat the telephone signal to the god. The spirit eats a part of the food that isn’t materialised and the rest we can eat later. A practical, non-waste approach.

Spirit houses are part of old worship that is more closely related to animism than Theravada Buddhism but it is syncretism and blended into the religious traditions. There are ghosts, angels, and guardians of the land that people have to respect to be able to be protected and live peacefully in their houses.

Temple and religious etiquette is a key factor in getting along with Thai people since religious traditions are still such a major part of daily life and society. To understand Thailands contemporary life as well as old culture and traditions visiting temples is a major part of any trip to Thailand.

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